Heel pride comes with sense of loss

Basketball: Baltimore's Melvin Scott is still pinching himself at being a freshman starter for North Carolina, but the team's struggles have tempered his pleasure.

January 09, 2002|By James Giza | James Giza,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Sometimes, when no one else is around, Melvin Scott will duck into the Dean E. Smith Center and soak up his surroundings.

He will lift weights or practice his jump shot, walk to half court, pause and look around - at the jerseys of former North Carolina basketball greats hanging from the rafters, at the seemingly endless rows of seats rising toward banners commemorating Atlantic Coast Conference and national championships.

"Sometimes, I act like, hey, I'm used to it," said Scott, the Tar Heels' freshman point guard. "And then I stop and ask myself, `Melvin, do you know where you are?'"

And then it hits home. He is at the university he told Meredith Smith, his coach at Southern High, that he wanted to attend as early as freshman year in high school. He is at the school of Michael Jordan, who appears in 50 posters and magazine pictures that cover an entire wall of Scott's bedroom in East Baltimore.

"I always envisioned coming here," Scott said. "But I never thought I'd get the opportunity because I never heard of anyone from Baltimore coming to North Carolina."

But even Scott couldn't have pictured what has happened to him - or to the Tar Heels.

In the midst of one of its worst starts in history, North Carolina (5-6) will be at Cole Field House tonight to take on Maryland. The Tar Heels' opening three losses, including defeats to mid-major programs Hampton and Davidson, marked the first time they had begun a season 0-3 since 1928.

Their 84-62 loss to Wake Forest on Saturday was their worst at home since a 22-point loss to Maryland in 1975, continuing talk of an NCAA tournament come March without the usual Carolina blue, which would break a string of 27 appearances.

Scott had visions of playing on television and winning countless games in front of adoring crowds. He never anticipated being ensnared in such trying times.

"It's been like my dream came true, but it's almost a nightmare," he said.

However, adversity has created opportunity for the 6-foot-2, 179-pound freshman, who turns 20 next month.

Hoping Scott's quickness and shooting touch could provide a spark, head coach Matt Doherty inserted him into the starting lineup at shooting guard in the second game of the season. Scott responded with a team-high 15 points in a 58-54 loss to Davidson.

Encouraged by that performance and disappointed with the lackluster play of sophomore Adam Boone, Doherty made Scott the starting point guard.

It was a quick ascension for a player who was promised 12 to 15 minutes per game - maybe - when he was being recruited out of Southern, where he was twice named to The Sun's All-Metro first team. Scott hadn't even played point guard since his freshman year, a necessity then because his brother, Charles, a senior, played shooting guard at Southern.

Scott has started for UNC every game since, averaging 6.7 points and 2.1 assists (against 2.7 turnovers).

With two other freshmen playing key roles on this year's team - swingman Jackie Manuel and forward Jawad Williams -poise and steadiness at point guard have become especially valuable commodities for the Tar Heels.

"I think he's been doing a great job in a very difficult circumstance," said Doherty, who is in his second year at North Carolina and who began recruiting Scott while head coach at Notre Dame.

"The last four or five minutes of the game, we have three freshmen and two seniors on the floor, and I'm asking him to run the offense, run the defense, think for the team," he said. "That's a lot to ask of a freshman, especially a guy who didn't play the point guard the last few years."

At times, Scott has flashed maturity beyond his experience. Against Georgia Tech, he helped force a steal and then converted a three-point play to seal the Tar Heels' first win. He grabbed a crucial rebound and called time while falling out of bounds in the waning seconds of a 61-60 win over Binghamton.

But he still looks frazzled on some possessions and is prone to turnovers. Against the Demon Deacons on Saturday, Scott committed five turnovers in the game's opening five minutes and was benched for Boone.

"I think he rushes himself sometimes," said senior forward Jason Capel. "I think, most importantly, he's looking over his shoulder too much, looking at Coach instead of just playing. It's hard to play your best when you're looking at the coach the whole game, and as a freshman I understand that, but he has to shed that."

On the court during games, Capel dispenses impassioned earfuls to the freshman, trying to help Scott rid himself of his timidity and pick up his level of play.

Scott credits the on- and off-court advice of his teammates - particulary that of Capel and senior forward Kris Lang, whom he calls his big brothers - for helping him progress at his new position.

Admittedly much more comfortable at shooting guard, he called the switch "the toughest thing for me this year coming into Carolina as a freshman." He added that looking for his own shots may help ease his transition to point guard.

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